Give Net shopping a chance

December 07, 1998|By Mike Himowitz

Judging from the pile of glossy catalogs in our snail-mail box this season (about 25 pounds and counting), online shopping hasn't made a big impact on the way we buy and sell things.

But this year could be the turning point, for a couple of reasons. First, by the end of the holiday shopping spree, at least half the households in America will have personal computers. Second, for people who have bought PCs in the last few years, connecting to the Internet has been easy and cheap enough to make opportunities for online shopping available. As a result, the computer-using population is more experienced and willing to take the plunge.

Merchants, too, are beginning to wake up. The phenomenal success of bookselling giant amazon.com and of record merchant cdnow.com have convinced retailers that there may be something to this Web stuff after all. Or maybe they've been listening to the analysts and Internet researchers who expect online commerce to double this year and increase exponentially in the future.

But what really convinced me was the cover of the issue of Newsweek that arrived last week. There, in a Santa suit, was no less a personage than Martha Stewart - the lady who does things the right way - assuring us that online shopping was not only safe, but the right thing to do. Heck, if Martha says it's OK, you can bet on it.

So, with Martha's blessing, I'll pass on some tips and observations.

First, online shopping is a lot like catalog shopping. There are some items that lend themselves to it and some that don't. If you're buying books, CDs, a Walkman, toaster, a computer game, a set of socket wrenches or a Furby (good luck!), you probably know what you want. At best, you're shopping for price and features that can easily be compared. On the other hand, you probably wouldn't want to shop for a pair of earings or a diamond ring online - they're items you'd probably rather see in person.

Clothing falls somewhere in between. Millions of people are comfortable buying clothes through catalogs - otherwise companies such as Land's End, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer wouldn't be in business. Millions more can't bear the thought of buying anything they can't touch, feel and try on in a store.

The bottom line: if you're comfortable buying something through a catalog, there's no reason not to buy it online - in many cases you're dealing with the same merchants. If you're squeamish about catalogs, using a computer and the Internet won't make you feel any better.

I've dealt with the issue of security before. Basically, your credit card numbers is probably as safe on the Internet as it is with the clerk at your local retailer. The most recent versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer have security features built in that online merchants can use to encrypt your credit card number, name, address and other information. Most Web sites will tell you that they're using these security features. If you don't see any notice - or your Web browser warns you that what you're sending is insecure - check with the merchant by phone before you commit any sensitive information to the Web.

Just as important is the privacy of your transaction - what the merchant does with the information he gathers about you. It's perfectly acceptable for a retailer to use information for internal purposes. For example, if you buy a CD player from merchant, there's no reason why he shouldn't use that information to offer you CD specials the next time you log on. This is called smart marketing - and even good customer service.

On the other hand, if an online merchant sells your name, address and details of your purchases to someone else, you may find yourself deluged with junk mail, - electronic and paper - or worse yet, dinner time calls from telemarketers. Basically what you buy is the business of two people - you and the person you bought it from. Check the online store's privacy policy. If you don't find one posted, or the merchant doesn't give you the opportunity to keep your information from being sold to others, shop somewhere else.

Finally, shop around. One advantage of the Web is that it can put you in contact with thousands of merchants, and you can compare prices with a couple of mouse clicks. For example, as an exercise I recently shopped at five online CD retailers, looking for an album by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy that several local stores were selling for the list price of $17.83, including tax.

The online prices ranged from $13.98 to $16.56, including shipping, with the winner being Pentagon CDs & Tapes (www.pentagon.net). Pentagon's CD price was fractionally higher than Amazon's, but its shipping charge was much lower. This is another item to watch for - a lot of stores make up on "shipping and handling" what they don't make on price, so shop carefully. If you're buying books, CDs or other relatively inexpensive items, you may have to purchase several at the same time before you'll really save money.

To find online merchants, check out the big Web portals (Yahoo, Excite, AOL, Infoseek, Altavista and Netscape). Many of them are "partners" with specific retailers - meaning the merchants pay them to highlight their sites, but browse through their offerings and you'll find more online stores than you'll ever have time to visit.

Also, for tips on shopping (including where to find online coupons) links to online merchants, reviews of web sites and other information, check out the eSmarts Web site (www.esmarts.com).

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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